by Joe Wagner
Only slightly less popular than reenactor Question #1 – “Aren’t those clothes hot?” is Question #2 – “What kind of gun is that?” While rifle persons can provide an infinity of answers, those of the Line persuasion have mostly two popular options – British Brown Bess or French Charleville.
Saving the French for another day, the following information largely comes from an article in the National Rifle Association American Rifleman magazine, April 2001 issue. It provides some basic facts to use when next you face Question #2. To answer the first subset of the question – there’s still no definitive answer to the origin of the nickname “Brown Bess”.
Until about 1720, each regiment of the British army was armed to suit the Colonel commanding. There was no standard for caliber, barrel length, etc. The Royal Board of Ordinance solved this logistical nightmare in 1722 when it established a standard pattern for the musket, designating it the “King’s Pattern.” It was not until 1730 that production versions of the King’s Pattern flintlock musket appeared. In keeping with traditional contemporary terminology, there were Land and Sea Service patterns. While there are any number of distinguishing features of the various models of the Bess, the most noticeable and relevant is the barrel length. The first Land Service Bess had a 46” barrel. The caliber was .75, the same as current replicas. The stock, metal furniture, and lock were little different in appearance from our modern versions, although there was a noticeable curvature to the bottom of the butt stock, akin to that of a typical American long rifle of later decades. By 1740, this standard pattern had replaced the Colonel’s patterns in most British regiments.
The second Land Service pattern was that of 1742, which differed little from the 1730 version. The curve on the bottom side of the buttstock was straightened, and there were new stronger trigger guard and flash pan designs. Caliber and barrel length remained the same at .75 and 46”. This 1742 pattern was the primary British weapon of the French and Indian War.
The third Land Service pattern, of 1756, brought one major change – the ramrod, previously made of wood, was changed to steel, with necessarily smaller brass rammer pipes, and introduction of the horn-shaped first pipe, to more easily accept the end of the rammer. The protective brass nose cap at the front end of the stock was also added. This Land Service pattern of 1756, still with the long 46” barrel, was the principal arm of the British army during the early years of the Revolutionary War, and of course, of the American militia and regulars who managed to obtain one.
However, the 1756 pattern for the Naval Service did incur a major design shift. As noted above, the Land Pattern remained very similar to earlier designs, with 46” barrel. But the Sea pattern, to decrease cost and increase handling ease, departed from the 46” long barrel, shortening it to 42”. This new Sea Service pattern is known to modern collectors as the Marine pattern of 1756. The Ordinance Board, and the military generally, were favorably impressed with the Sea pattern of 1756. The evidence of that good impression can be found in the many 4” sections of sawed-off Land pattern muskets that have been found at British French and Indian War excavations.
It wasn’t until 1768 that the Ordinance Board finally adopted the 42” barrel for the British land forces. The Land Service pattern of 1768 was a combination of features from the Sea (Marine) pattern and the Land pattern of 1756. The lock plate has a flatter surface than before, but the appearance is virtually identical to the 1756 except for barrel length. It’s at this point a now commonly used distinction in Bess Land Service models is established. The pattern of 1768 is the first to be known as the Short (42”) Land pattern, while the three earlier models are known as Long (46”) Land patterns (1730, 1742, and 1756). It is this model – the Short Land Service pattern of 1768 – that most of today’s reenactor replica muskets emulate.
To complete the story of the Revolutionary War Bess, in 1777, an operational design change was made to the 1768 Short Land Pattern. To save time during loading, the second rammer pipe was reshaped to echo the form of the first, with a larger mouth to ease the progress of the returning rammer. A significant number of 1777 Short Land pattern muskets are documented in service in America during the Revolution, although probably outnumbered by the 1768.
According to the author of the American Rifleman article – George Neumann, based on research by George D. Moller (American Military Shoulder Arms, Vol. I), virtually all British military weapons in the hands of both the American militia and most of the British regiments in North America at the beginning of the war were Long Land pattern muskets. Surviving records for New York and Quebec record over 5,000 Long Land pattern muskets in arsenal storage early in the war. It was not until about 1778, when significant numbers of fresh regiments were being sent to the colonies, that the Short Land patterns of 1768 and 1777 came to dominate within the British army in America.
Things to remember for your public interpretation:
- There are five basic models of the Brown Bess, dating back 50 years before the American Revolution.
- The first three (1730, 1742, 1756) were called Long Land pattern (46” barrels), the last two (1768, 1777) were known as Short Land pattern (42” barrels). The majority of replicas are the 1768 Short Land pattern.
- Most Americans who had a Bess, particularly militia, had the Long Land pattern.
- The earliest documented use of the term “Brown Bess” in the context of the American colonies was in the Connecticut Current newspaper issue of April 2, 1771. “… but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulder and march.”